Finding Joy in Music with the DSO
Music education is vital as children may feel isolated, disconnected from society, and without an outlet to express themselves. During this unprecedented time, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) has continued to provide music education to Detroit’s youth in the face of massive budget cuts to arts and culture funding around the country.
My story with the DSO is a personal one that began when I picked up the violin in elementary school. With a free ticket from the DSO, I saw my first concert at Orchestra Hall featuring the world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. Several years later, I played on that same stage as a member of the DSO’s Youth Orchestra. I am one of the thousands of metro Detroit students whose lives were positively impacted by the DSO’s youth programs. The appreciation I developed for classical music and the arts has stayed with me for a lifetime. We must not allow music and arts programs to end for Detroit youth when they need them the most.
I spoke with the DSO’s Education Manager Debora Kang and Assistant Principal percussionist Andrés Pichardo-Rosenthal about how their love of music began as children, the DSO’s education initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, and advice they have for young and inspiring musicians who want to keep finding inspiration in music.
How did you become interested in music?
Andrés: I was born in Nicaragua and raised in Los Angeles. My music career started with listening to a lot of jazz and classical music growing up. No one in my family was a professional musician but they really loved music. It would always be playing in the house, so I had a deep appreciation for it before I started playing. I wasn’t one of those kids that loved practicing, but I did love listening to music. I played the piano and some other instruments before I started playing percussion. It wasn’t until high school that I saw myself playing music for a living. Growing up I loved music, but I didn’t have that discipline until later. But what started it for me was being surrounded by music.
Debora: I’m an administrator now but I grew up wanting to be like Andrés and play in an orchestra professionally. I grew up in an immigrant family and I’m a second-generation Korean immigrant. I grew up very poor in a little town in Illinois. Across my apartment complex, there was a complex where a lot of Northwestern University professors lived. There was a piano professor who would practice all the time with his windows open. I would play outside with my brothers listening to a professional musician play all the time. I think I grew to love that sound.
It sounds cliché but I would listen to the Beethoven melody on the Tom and Jerry show and then I’d play the same on the keyboard. By happenstance, that piano professor was walking by when he saw me play and follow along. I was four years old. He knocked on my apartment door and asked my parents if he could teach me. I was mortified but he opened my eyes to music.
I switched to flute later in my career and began to love the flute music and pursued it in college. A flute professor told me I had a knack for administration. I didn’t even know administration was a field. I looked into it and discovered that I didn’t have to stress out about auditioning and still live in the orchestral world. My mother was an educator. I love children and I love music, so this was a perfect culmination and here I am.
What are the education initiatives that the DSO has planned during the pandemic and with Orchestra Hall being closed?
Debora: We have multiple educational programs that are focused on Detroit kids. As an organization, our mission is to make sure that we take care of the City of Detroit and that includes Detroit’s children. One of our biggest programs is the Educational Concert Series. We held 7 to 8 concerts with around 15,000 children attending our concerts each year. The pandemic has definitely changed the scope of the work that we do. Our educational concerts have been shifted online which we call Watch Parties. We offer Education Watch Parties every week that are free live stream webcasts so families and schools can view concerts from the comfort of their own homes or classrooms. We had about 35,000 viewers on our last webcast. We will migrate toward Family Watch Parties launching July 18th with additional concerts scheduled for August 1 and August 15, 2020.
Civic Youth Ensembles is a Metro Detroit program, but we are trying to grow our Detroit student presence. We offer scholarships to Detroit students and a free lesson program because we understand that many students don’t know the culture of private lessons and practicing. We want to give them the opportunity to learn that culture and make that a regular thing for them. During the pandemic there is CYE@Home on Facebook every Saturday at 10:00 AM, online sessions, private and group lessons, and virtual classes that cover a wide variety of music education like score study, music theory, conducting, audition prep, and instrument technique.
Although diversity has improved, people of color are still underrepresented in orchestras and as concert patrons. What resources are available for young musicians of color to enter the orchestral world professionally?
Andrés: Education, providing instruments, resources, and surrounding children with music at an early age is the preparation that is needed before the audition process. Sphinx Organization is an incredible place. There are people of color sprinkled throughout orchestras, but Sphinx is like a watercolor of diversity. Being a minority in a minority in classical music can be a challenge. Seeing people who don’t look like you on stage as a kid can be tough. Things like Sphinx and seeing more people of color play in orchestras compared to 50 years ago will be encouraging for the next generation of classical enthusiasts.
Debora: When I first came to the DSO, I was surprised to see that there were people of color in the orchestra because there were sadly zero in other orchestras I’ve seen. In the DSO it’s normal to have more than one person of color in the orchestra and among the staff. I know the DSO is working very strongly to make that pool of musicians of color become future orchestra members. The biggest barriers include not having the money or means to travel to an audition. We are trying to find ways to support that. We have two African American fellows each year to train them to audition to find a spot in the DSO or with other orchestras and help our industry become more diverse.
A memory that has stayed with me is playing with violinist Hilary Hahn when I studied violin at Interlochen Arts Camp. Was there a special moment where you played with or saw a live performance of a musician you admired that changed you as a musician?
Andrés: At the Detroit Jazz Fest two years ago, Chick Corea and some other incredible musicians were playing. I was in awe of sharing the stage with geniuses. That was an amazing time. I walked off stage and couldn’t believe that happened. The person I get starstruck by in the classical world is Augustin Hadelich, an incredible violinist. He’s so good, so expressive. Always so professional and sounds great.
Debora: When I worked at the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, cellist Yo-Yo Ma visited some kids and I was a helper. He asked me to hold his cello and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. I held it, but then he also let the kids play it. I admired Yoyo’s selflessness of letting kids touch the body of his expensive cello and pluck its strings. He just wanted kids to experience music. Another time was seeing a performance by jazz bass player Victor Wooten when I was a student. I never heard anyone play the bass, or rather, I never knew bass could play music. His performance transformed me. There was a master class afterward and he was so chill. Music is so selfless and so powerful.
Speaking of jazz music, does the DSO offer educational programs in jazz?
Debora: The Civic Youth Ensembles has a jazz orchestra, jazz band, and creative jazz ensemble where they improv together and teach jazz theory.
What is your advice for children who are at home and want to pick up an instrument or continue playing? Though there are virtual resources, interacting with people is such a huge part of the musical experience, whether it is performing at a concert, going to a private tutor, or taking music class at school, so this can be a particularly challenging time for young performers.
Andrés: It’s really tough. I’ve done a couple of classes for college-level people and they are having a rough time. It’s so hard to make your own schedule. Every day is the same and you aren’t working towards a goal because it’s Groundhog’s Day. With kids especially it’s important to just continue doing things that remind you why you like music. There are so many resources online to look at amazing videos of musicians to be inspired. Seeing live broadcasts of the DSO or other orchestras like the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, or the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Being exposed to that can help generate inspiration. In terms of playing, if there is a song you want to learn, now is a time to learn it. If there is a style of music or an instrument you want to learn, now is the time. I think especially for younger aged children, just generating inspiration is the most important part of this time.
Debora: Everyone loves music. It’s what we lean on when we’re sad, or excited, or even upset. No matter how you feel, let the music heal you. Even better, you can make music at home too, whether it is singing or banging on the table to your favorite song on the radio. If you ever feel the urge to sing, to play a tune, or want to explore other instruments, feed your curiosity. Let it be a part of your every day and that will cheer you up. Even for kids who don’t play instruments yet.